Blockchains, EHRs, roadblocks and baby steps

TTA founder and former editor Steve Hards crawls out of his retirement tent to squint at the misty landscape of blockchain technology.

In a recent dream I was observing an auditorium full of people chanting “Blockchain! Blockchain! Blockchain!” and yes, mantra-like, blockchain is now popping up all the time in health technology articles and presentations.

It has taken a while to get to this stage. It was January 2016 when Editor-in-Chief Donna first mentioned blockchain. Since then there appears to have been more talk than action.

A year ago, in February 2017, health IT guru Brian Ahier was able to say in a comment here “Blockchain of course, is going to sneak up on a lot of people…”

Where we have seen developments occurring is in the trickle of ‘coins’ or ‘tokens’ in health-related Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) of dubious investment worthiness. I may rant about those in a follow-up article if anyone is interested. (Let me know in a comment.)

The terminology is still in its ‘shakedown phase’ (see this great terminology rant) and, because of the publicity around Bitcoin, which is on a blockchain, the distinction between blockchains and distributed ledger databases is blurred. There are technical differences: blockchains are a sub-set of distributed ledgers (Wikipedia), which is the term I’ll generally use in this article.

Distributed ledgers and EHRs

What are the implications of distributed ledgers for the biggest databases in healthcare, electronic health records (EHRs)?

The two principal characteristics that differentiate distributed ledgers from the databases with which we are familiar are that they are more robust and, potentially, more private. Some even claim to be quantum computing hack proof although we will have to wait for hackers with quantum computers to test that.

Traditional databases are formed from one large or several linked entities that have a centralised control from where performance, data integrity and security are monitored and managed. There are human and technological factors that introduce weaknesses to all such systems, as the number of data breaches reported here over the years testify.